The Asclepias syriaca, more commonly known as the milkweed plant, is a herbaceous plant, which is also known as Butterfly flower, silkweed, wild cotton, silky swallowwort, etc. It is found throughout the United States, in dry or swampy areas, as long as they get plenty of sunshine. It is called milkweed because it exudes a thick, sticky white sap from all its parts; stems, flowers, and leaves.
The milkweed is a perennial plant that grows from deep rhizomes. Its main stem is mostly solitary, that branches out to many sturdy, rounded, hairy stems. It is generally five to six feet tall, although many new cultivated varieties are shorter in height and more branching. The leaves are simple, broad, and ovate in shape with a reddish stripe along the midrib, and sparsely hairy above, and densely hairy on the underside. The flowers bloom in late summer, and are tiny and grow in clusters of 20 - 100 per pod. Each flower has five petals, with an erect lobe that stands up. The flowers come in an array of pleasing colors; white, purple, red, pink, orange and yellow. The flowers exude a very heady aroma.
Milkweed is easily propagated through seeds and rhizome cuttings, thus, making it easy to take care. While gardening, if you wish to grow it from seeds, one can either buy the seeds from nurseries, or harvest them from previous years growths. Collect pods that have dried on the plant itself. Seeds are wind dispensed, so collect them carefully. Slit open the pod and collect the seeds in a paper. For sowing them, fill a seed tray with some potting soil, and moisten it, either by spray misting them or standing the tray in water for some time. The dampness of the soil will bind the seeds, that otherwise are quite prone to flying away. Evenly spread the seeds, and cover them with a thin layer of soil. Cover the seed tray with a plastic wrap, as this will prevent the soil from drying out. Keep misting the soil. The seeds will germinate in a week's time. At this stage, you need to move them towards more light. The soil should be kept moist, never wet. Once they reach a six leaf stage, transplant them.
Milkweeds are non-fussy in nature. They are also invasive in nature, so their growth needs to be controlled. As they develop rhizomes, one can mow them down completely during winters. Mowing them down, anywhere from late spring to early summer, will result in no-show of flowers. If one has planted them in containers, move them indoors during winters as they are not frost tolerant. They do well with minimum fertilizing and water. As the plant contains milk sap, excess of fertilizer and water will set rot in them. Many pests inflict them, like aphids, true bug, etc. Using pesticide often gets rid of them.
Not only do milkweeds look great in flower gardens, but the monarch butterfly has quite a taste for its flower nectar. A female monarch lays its eggs on the underside of the leaves, where they hatch into yellow, black, and white banded larvae. It is the only plant that the larvae can eat. The larvae develop into caterpillars about 2 inches long, and attach themselves heads down on a twig, eventually transforming into a chrysalis. And in two weeks, the chrysalis metamorphosis into a beautiful monarch butterfly.
Although milkweed is an edible plant, it needs specific cooking care, as it is toxic. The milk found is both acidic and slightly poisonous to many animals and birds, as well as humans. With very basic care routine, one can have plenty of monarch butterflies all over the place!